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Federico F. Peña Headshot
Federico C. Baradello Headshot

Spain's Arizona

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Arizona isn't the only place confronting a broken immigration system. In recent years, Spain's Canary Islands received tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants while thousands more died trying to make the ocean journey from West Africa. It's no surprise that Spanish politicians now call the waterways between Africa and Spain "Europe's Rio Grande."

Similar to the U.S., Spain's immigration policies have failed and teach an important lesson: Piecemeal policies that "secure the border first" have been tried in the past and will not work in the future. Only comprehensive immigration reform can stop unauthorized immigration.

Since the mid-1990s, as unauthorized immigration from Africa to Spain grew, the Spanish government poured money into expensive border patrols along the Strait of Gibraltar (the narrow waterway separating North Africa from Spain). At first, these patrols seemed to slow unauthorized immigration into Spain, but after several years unauthorized immigrants began heading to the nearby Canary Islands in droves. Spanish border controls were only successful until human smugglers found new routes for desperate immigrants.

A decade earlier, along our Southwest border with Mexico, the Clinton administration enacted the Southwest Border Strategy, which built and reinforced border fences and multiplied investment in border patrols along the most populated segments of the border. The strategy called for raising the risk of unauthorized immigrant apprehension by closing off the most commonly used human smuggling routes. Administration officials believed this would either deter immigrant traffic or force the traffic over terrain less suited for crossing, where immigrants would be easier to detect. Yet as this strategy was implemented, immigrant traffic shifted to dangerous desert and mountain passages along the border. Immigrant traffic shifted to Arizona.

Securing the Mexico-U.S. border in the absence of other policies resulted in other unintended consequences. First, border controls made a temporary unauthorized immigrant population more permanent. Immigrants were less likely to risk returning to their native countries if it meant facing greater difficulties re-entering the U.S. to continue working. Second, border controls accelerated the growth of an underground human smuggling industry.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Arizona and the Canary Islands, it is that border controls and amnesties alone are not a panacea for stopping unauthorized immigration. Nor do these policies address the large percentages of unauthorized immigrants who enter the U.S. and Spain by overstaying their visas. Since most of today's unauthorized immigration is economically motivated, immigration reform must also address labor supply and demand realities.

The U.S. and Europe today have aging societies and local economies that have historically created more jobs than there are people to fill them. Addressing the demand side means enforcing employer sanctions to stop employers from hiring unauthorized workers. Addressing the supply side means expanding pathways for legal immigration to attract and retain low skilled and highly skilled immigrants to fill jobs unfilled by authorized residents. Visa programs must be flexible enough to recognize the difference between an immigrant fruit picker in California's Central Valley and an immigrant computer scientist employed by Google while adapting to changes in different economic sectors. Addressing the supply side also means working with immigrants' native countries to help their governments provide more jobs for their people.

Comprehensive immigration reform therefore requires "opening the front door while closing the back door." As long as there are job opportunities through the back door paying huge income multiples over comparable jobs in immigrants' native countries, unauthorized immigration is bound to continue. The current U.S. economic downturn has been followed by decreased immigration into the U.S. -- a reminder that, above all else, economic factors motivate unauthorized immigration.

The U.S. and Europe share the burden of failed immigration policies, and the lesson is clear: Piecemeal strategies that "secure the border first" are short-sighted and contribute to a false debate. They are short-sighted because they repeat past mistakes and do not stop unauthorized immigration. They contribute to a false debate because they attribute insufficient border controls to immigration policy failure when the real culprit is the lack of comprehensive reform. This false debate is particularly damaging because it feeds prejudices that brand unauthorized immigrants as "immigrant invaders" instead of as working people who simply want to make a living.

The United States, as a nation of immigrants that provides an American Dream to all its immigrants, must lead the way. Both authors of this column come from a Hispanic heritage and greatly benefited from that American Dream, and many Americans can point to their immigrant origins from every corner of the world. The ongoing immigration debate must acknowledge that it is in America's enlightened national interest to craft immigration policies rooted in this common American narrative.

Federico Peña is a Senior Advisor to Vestar Capital Partners and a former public official who served as Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, and previously as Mayor of the City of Denver. Federico Baradello is completing a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics and a J.D. at the University of California, Berkeley (Boalt Hall).

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